August 20, 2014

One size does not fit all preschoolers

By Anastasia P. Boden Attorney

While many of us think the term “cradle to grave government” is a derogatory label, state governments are wearing the title like a badge of honor.  Despite the massive amount of funds needed, and the loads and loads of research about what a failure it is, states are seeking to establish or expand compulsory, uniform preschool programs.  (Because cost-benefit analyses don’t mean a thing if it’s not your own money you’re spending.)

Worse, federal-led universal preschool is on the horizon.  Like Common Core, the program would use millions of dollars of taxpayer money to foist a standardized curriculum on classrooms across the country.  And like Common Core, the program suffers several problems.  Namely, it’s a threat to school choice.  As we’ve explained before, one size does not fit every student.  American children come from varying backgrounds, have different expectations, and learn in different ways. Yet Common Core expects students to learn the same thing and achieve the same results, in the same way.

As studies show, students excel when parents have a choice among competing schools.  Like any other commodity, education improves with competition.  Where schools are allowed to experiment, and parents allowed to choose between different schools, the best schools win out—and by extension, kids too.

Especially troubling is the fact that both Common Core and universal pre-k may threaten to co-opt even private schools.  Because standardized tests are being written to align with Common Core, and because some states are limiting the use of school vouchers and tax credits to Common Core-aligned schools, private schools face pressure to adopt the program.  And in New York, the state’s efforts to expand government funded pre-k into private schools has caused skirmishes between government officials and religious groups.  Asked by sectarian school leaders about permissible and impermissible lesson plans, NYC officials stated that:

a mock Seder would not be allowed, because it is a religious ritual, though “social/historical educational elements” of the Seder, which celebrates Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, could be O.K.; that the symbolism of the menorah would “depend on the context”; and that “it would be permissible to teach that there is a custom to sit in a sukkah during a certain time period, but not to perform the ritual itself.”

Things get messy when the government tries to impose a uniform curriculum on public schools, let alone private schools.  In contrast, permitting decisions over curriculum and school policy to be made at the local level, with choice between schools, generates education programs that suit parents’ needs and preferences—thereby reducing disagreement between parents and administrators, or between groups of parents.  If a family doesn’t like its school’s policy or curriculum, they can just move.

But most importantly, as we know from K-12 school choice programs across the country, the biggest beneficiaries of school choice are the kids themselves—particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.  Universal preschool may be an equalizer, but it will bring everyone down equally.

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